Saturday, June 13, 2015

Calculated Savings

Unless you have more money than sense, you generally watch what you spend. Your perception of an object or service is colored by its cost, a balancing act where you weigh the cash in your wallet against being the item's new owner. That's not to say that we always spend our funds wisely: let he or she among us who hasn't bought a sweater or shoes "just because" cast the first credit card.  

Speaking for myself, I constantly have an adding machine going in my head. That means I'm calculating not just the desirability of a given object or service, but what combinations of it with other things will yield the lowest price. Doesn't matter if its dinner or going to work or picking up some toiletries. Is a two-pack of shaving cream cheaper than buying two cans of a different brand? Is ordering movie tickets online and paying a surcharge for the guarantee of a seat worth it, or has the film been out long enough to make that a waste of money? What if I buy a weekly train pass and only go in four days? What if 2 of those trips are off peak? Yes, sometimes it is exhausting just being me.

But sometimes it adds up, literally. They are few pleasures more sublime than getting it right. Perhaps I need to buy socks, but on a hunch hold off and have a coupon show up in my inbox the next day. Conversely, sometimes despite my best efforts, I'm on the losing side of the equation, even if it's for all the right reasons. I might have a quiet week, and so buy just a daily train ticket. Then a client calls on Tuesday, and wants to book me for several extra days, necessitating more trips back and forth. So while my income might double that week from what I was expecting, I'm more annoyed that I can't avail myself of the $11 saving I would have gotten with a weekly chit. Can you say "can't see the forest for the trees?"

Then every so often the stars align. I was heading to New Jersey for a project, when a different client called last minute and asked me to help out on a high profile event that evening and next day. It meant having to come back into the city as soon as I was done with the first project. That was as opposed to the leisurely late morning train I had been planning to take the following day, followed by an early one back out with our boys for a family event. Because of the nature of the project and the late hours, the client kindly offered a hotel for the night. As I threw stuff in a bag before I ran out the door, I quickly consulted the train schedule, seeing when I might get back up to our area before grabbing a late train into town. (It was confirmation of my theory that the jobs themselves are easy compared to logistics of juggling multiple clients and locations.)

As I started my mental calculator, I added up the cost of the trains back and forth vs. going to the city directly and parking for the night, never a cheap proposition. For sure it made more sense to do what I was doing: the differential of training vs. driving was $20 or more. But in a quiet moment once I got to the first location, I revisited my calculus. I had forgotten to factor in the cost of the boys' train tickets, which of course dad would offer to pay for once we were all seated together. I checked a nifty app called Best Parking, which ID'd a garage in the area that offered a seriously discounted rate. And then I redid the math: add in the discounted parking, but subtract my train in and out, as well as their tickets. The swing went from plus $20 to minus $18. It was like winning the lottery.

All went as planned. The garage was easy to find, the three of us connected easily at 4:30, and even better, the roads were clear and we got to the party early. To say I felt like I had bested the system is understating it. Or with apologies to Crazy Horse, it was a good day to drive.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to think he is thrifty, not cheap. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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